Jayashantha Jayawardhana shuns the dark side of loyalty

Fawning over their bosses seems to have become second nature to many overly ambitious people who are in constant pursuit of corporate perks. With their ardent belief that the end justifies the means, if it flatters their chief’s ego, many people will eagerly endorse a risky business decision even if it could possibly endanger the entire organisation.

The bosses and their inner circle of yes-men will stay safe – they may even thrive as long as luck is on their side, which will not be forever. But if and when they fail, their businesses crash to the ground.

How does this happen? you ask.

All leaders, from business to politics, appreciate loyalty from their followers. This is quite natural because without loyalty, there’s no reason for people to devote years of their lives to a particular employer, to safeguard its trade secrets and go the extra mile without considering what’s in store for them.

To cut a long story short, no business can be built without sufficient loyalty.

But over the years, as a business grows and its brands gain a reputation, at some point in time, its leaders may come to believe they’re astute businesspeople – and their judgement could never be wrong. If they had exhibited some narcissistic traits before then, the odds are high that this flawed belief in possessing the Midas touch could reinforce their narcissism – either overtly or covertly.

Consequently, they’ll expect adulation and refuse to be contradicted or challenged. And they will not tolerate any dissent from their followers. Once their narcissism becomes evident, their followers will resort to sycophancy as the surest means of survival.

Worse still, the craftier followers will play on their chief’s ego for personal gain at the expense of the organisation, whereupon loyalty and flattery will be the most effective weapons in their arsenal. The problem will exacerbate when the followers also lose touch with reality, and start believing in the grandiose aspirations and sense of invincibility of their leaders.

It won’t be long before group narcissism takes hold and the organisation begins to exhibit the same traits.

Now don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against bold visions, audacious goals and an optimistic outlook. In fact, a healthy dose of collective narcissism based on a well-founded vision is necessary for the progress of any organisation. But business leaders must be mindful about where they draw the line and decide how much group narcissism is too much.

If individual narcissism is bad enough, organisational narcissism is worse.

In his enlightening book titled ‘Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships,’ Daniel Goleman observes: “Organisational narcissism has clear perils. Pumping up grandiosity, whether it’s the boss’ or some false collective self-image held throughout the company, becomes the operating norm. Healthy dissent dies out. And any organisation that’s cheated of a full grasp of truth loses the ability to respond nimbly to harsh realities…”

In pumping up the organisation’s grandiosity, people deliberately conceal bad news from the bosses or distort it so they won’t be held responsible. Everything the leaders hear from their trusted and loyal followers will simply confirm their delusions. Therefore, they will be kept in the dark perhaps until the company is the subject of a glaring headline of a major newspaper or top online news portal… and then they’re jolted into reality.

Goleman’s picture gets even bleaker as he adds: “The narcissistic organisation becomes a moral universe of its own; a world where its goals, goodness and means are not questioned but taken as holy writ. It’s a world where doing whatever we need to, to get whatever we want, seems perfectly fine. The ongoing self-celebration fogs over how divorced from reality we’ve become. The rules don’t apply to us, just to the others…”

Consider recent corporate scandals and meltdowns such as Wells Fargo, Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, Lehman Brothers, Olympus and so on. Behind the outright falsehoods and elaborate financial cover-ups, these companies arguably shared one root cause – collective narcissism.

Once corporate arrogance becomes the standard operating procedure, it goes without saying that it spells the beginning of the end for a company, no matter how robust its business model is.

What will ensue with organisational narcissism is often a foregone conclusion. While it won’t be easy for an organisation to bounce back from an epic scandal, we have to keep in mind that the worst is yet to come – bankruptcy.

The moral here is this: see the dark side of loyalty and watch out for the demons of success.